After a summer with Ellen Bryant Voigt's formal questioning, I find I cannot approach a body of poet's work without scrutinizing syntax and lineation. Equally compelling is the consideration of technology--the ways in which Emily Dickinson distributed her poems among friends and family in letters, her fascicles (chapbooks, in some senses) bound by hand, her distinctive handwriting and its changes, and here I am, a century and a half later, blogging about her work, this strange technology, where words do not breathe on the page but on the screen and enter the worlds of who-knows--this private consideration in a public place. Because of that idiosyncratic handwriting, some who reprint her work attempt to alter the dash to best represent what it is doing in the poem; some say the various breeds of dashes in her work change meaning. It's also interesting to think of how the work is arranged, but I think this is a topic for another posting.
A few questions have arisen while areadin' and I sought answers in the realm of the internet:
1. Those dashes: what is going on?
As I read, I think of the breath. My own poetry exists (mostly) within the poetic block--I have (recently) been told those nouns are housed within a box. It's interesting to consider restriction playing up against an opening and which is more successful and when.
Kamilla Denman writes about the dash on Modern American Poetry. (Originally published in The Emily Dickinson Journal with the title "Emily Dickinson's Volcanic Punctuation") She says:
Unlike the exclamation mark, the dash that dominates the prolific period is a horizontal stroke, on the level of this world. It both reaches out and holds at bay. Its origins in ellipsis connect it semantically to planets and cycles (rather than linear time and sequential grammatical progression), as well as to silence and the unexpressed. But to dash is also "to strike with violence so as to break into fragments; to drive impetuously forth or out, cause to rush together; to affect or qualify with an element of a different strain thrown into it; to destroy, ruin, confound, bring to nothing, frustrate, spoil; to put down on paper, throw off, or sketch, with hasty and unpremeditated vigour; to draw a pen vigorously through writing so as to erase it; [is] used as a euphemism for 'damn,' or as a kind of verbal imprecation; [or is] one of the two signals (the other being the dot) which in various combinations make up the letters of the Morse alphabet." Dickinson uses the dash to fragment language and to cause unrelated words to rush together; she qualifies conventional language with her own different strains; and she confounds editorial attempts to reduce her "dashed off " jottings to a "final" version. Not only does she draw lines through her own drafts but also through the linguistic conventions of her society, and her challenges to God are euphemistic imprecations against conventional religion. Even the allusion to the Morse alphabet is not entirely irrelevant: through her unconventional use of punctuation, particularly the dash, Dickinson creates a poetry whose interpretation becomes a process of decoding the way each fragment signals meaning.
Dickinson's transition from a dominant use of the exclamation mark to a preference for the dash accompanied her shift from ejaculatory poems, which seem outcries aimed with considerable dramatic effect at God or others, to poems where the energies exist more in the relationships between words and between the poet and her words. In this intensely prolific period, Dickinson's excessive use of dashes has been interpreted variously as the result of great stress and intense emotion, as the indication of a mental breakdown, and as a mere idiosyncratic, female habit. Though these speculations are all subject to debate, it is clear that in the early 1860s Dickinson conducted her most intense exploration of language and used punctuation to disrupt conventional linguistic relations, whether in an attempt to express inexpressible psychological states or purely to vivify language.
And this, too--"Dashing Genius: Emily Dickinson and the Punctuation of Cognition," which opens:
Safely encased by the curve of bone, a palm-sized mass of wrinkled grey tissue throbs in the commotion of imagination. As tiny electrical currents spark, nerves burst into action along multiple pathways. Spider-shaped neurons pulse with messages throughout the cerebral cortex. Electric signals race down the axon of one nerve to the dendrite of the next, until even the most brilliant brain must pause for an infinitesimal moment, awaiting the leap -- the leap of embryonic, encoded ideas across the synapse, that tiny gap interspersed between membranes of adjoining neurons. Once past this cognitive divide, secreted neurochemicals wash through cellular landscapes and the brain registers human possibility.
Over one century ago in Amherst, Massachusetts, the particular brain of a gifted poet made precisely these synaptical connections, transforming reflections born from solitude into the actions of a pen on scraps of paper. And as Emily Dickinson scrawled her distinctive handwriting into the sloping curves of nonconventional verse, she chose to punctuate with the dash, perhaps in unconscious tribute to a gap and a leap within the mind.
The punctuation is equally difficult to decipher; what is now known as Dickinson’s characteristic "dash" is actually a richer variety of pen markings that have no typographical correspondents. Dashes are either long or short; sometimes vertical, as if to indicate musical phrasing, and often elongated periods, as if to indicate a slightly different kind of pause. Poem 327, "Before I got my eye put out," the original manuscript of which can be found online, ends with one of these markings:
So safer – guess – with just my soul
Upon the Window pane –
Where other Creatures put their eyes –
Incautious – of the Sun –
In keeping with her background in church hymns, some modern critics have even discussed the upwards or downwards movement of a dash, as if it might correspond to a "lifting" or "falling" phrase. Dickinson uses dashes musically, but also to create a sense of the indefinite, a different kind of pause, an interruption of thought, to set off a list, as a semi-colon, as parentheses, or to link two thoughts together—the shape of any individual dash might be seen as joining two thoughts together or pushing them apart. One of the most characteristic uses of the dash is at the end of a poem with a closed rhyme; the meter would shut, like a door, but the punctuation seems open. In these cases, it is likely meant to serve as an elongated end-stop. The dash was historically an informal mark, used in letters and diaries but not academic writing, and removing the dashes changes, even upon first glance, the visual liveliness and vigor of her verses. While Johnson’s system of transcribing all dash-like markings as a printed "n-dash," or short dash (as above), is imperfect, in early editions, these dashes were replaced by more regularized punctuation, such as commas and periods. Poem 320, "We play at Paste," was changed in punctuation, capitalization, and even stanza form.
We play at Paste –
Till qualified, for Pearl –
Then, drop the Paste –
And deem ourself a fool –
The Shapes – though – were similar –
And our new Hands
Learned Gem-Tactics –
Practicing Sands –
The above poem, when published for the first time, looked like this:
We play at paste,
Till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste,
And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar,
And our new hands
Not only does the poem leave a completely different visual impression on the page, but the pacing created by the punctuation is distorted as well, causing "The Shapes – though – were similar –" to be compressed into "The shapes, though, were similar." Finally, a traditional period ends the poem with more certainty than the original would suggest.
2. The capitalization. This comes through not only in her poems but in letters too.
In conference, I asked MDB, and he pointed to poetic tradition, but also urged me to dig a bit deeper, and this is what I found:
3. Oh those hymns.
A typical manuscript for a poem might include several undated versions, with varying capitalization throughout, sometimes a "C" or an "S" that seems to be somewhere between lowercase and capital, and no degree of logic in the capitalization. While important subject words and the symbols that correspond to them are often capitalized, often (but not always) a metrically stressed word will be capitalized as well, even if it has little or no relevance in comparison to the rest of the words in the poem. Early editors removed all capitals but the first of the line, or tried to apply editorial logic to their usage. For example, poem 632 is now commonly punctuated as follows:
The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –
The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For – hold them – Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb –
As Sponges – Buckets – do –
The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –
The above capitalizations, which include such seemingly unimportant words as "Blue," "Sponges," and "Buckets," capitalizing "Sky" but not "sea," were regularized into the following traditional capitalization and punctuation by early editors:
The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.
The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.
Because Dickinson is using rhyme and and free verse (and ballad meter), the poems are easily set to music. I grew up hearing my father singing "Because I could not stop for death, death kindly stopped for meeee" to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." No, really:
Douglas Duncan: "Her metrical lapses, though sometimes astounding in a poet with such a naturally good ear, occurred most commonly in poems which for one reason or another were falling to piece in any case."
Drawing from primarily musical forms such as hymns and ballads, and modifying them with her own sense of rhythm and sound, a Dickinson poem is unusual in that it both slows down and speeds up, interrupts itself, holds its breath, and sometimes trails off. The reader is led through the poem by the shape of her stanza forms, typically quatrains, and her unusual emphasis of words, either through capitalization or line position. The meter varies quite a bit even from the stresses expected in a hymn or ballad. Hymn meter differs from traditional meter by counting syllables, not "feet." Unlike ballad meter, quatrains are typically closed, meaning that the first and third lines will rhyme as well as the second and fourth. Some common forms of hymn meter that Dickinson used are common meter (a line of eight syllables followed by a line of six syllables, repeating in quatrains of an 8/6/8/6 pattern), long meter (8/8/8/8), short meter (6/6/6/6), and common particular meter (8/8/6/8/8/6). However, unlike writers of traditional hymns, Dickinson took liberties with the meter. She also allowed herself to use enjambment more frequently than traditional hymn writers, breaking a line where there is no natural or syntactic pause. For example, in the second stanza of "I cannot live with you," she writes:
The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –
Dickinson breaks the first line after a preposition and before a direct object; in both places, one would not traditionally punctuate with a comma, semicolon, or dash, and there would be no pause.
4. What was on her bedside table?
Poets.org Guide to Emily Dickinson shares:
Dickinson’s subject matter is best understood in how it reflects but also departs from her background and education. It is unclear to biographers and critics exactly what books Dickinson had access to, beyond the books that she makes mention of, often cryptically, in her letters. Among the 100 or so classic works found in her family library (some of which may not have been in the library during her lifetime) and a few hundred more mundane works and popular novels that she discussed in letters, it is unlikely that she had read more than a handful of philosophers, poets, and novelists. Influenced most by the Bible, Shakespeare, and the seventeenth century metaphysicals (noted for their extravagant metaphors in linking disparate objects), she wrote poems on grief, love, death, loss, affection and longing. Her presumed reading in the natural sciences, also reconstructed from studying her family library, allowed her to bring precision and individuality to natural subjects, observing nature for itself, rather than as a testament to the glory of creation, and touching upon the less beautiful aspects of nature, such as weeds and clover. Her forms were various and included riddles, declarations, complaints, love songs, stories, arguments, prayers, and definitions.When Elizabeth Barrett Browning died, she wrote: “Her—’last Poems’—ended—Silver—perished—with her Tongue—Not on Record—bubbled other, Flute—or Woman—so divine.”
Other bits I'm picking up, synthesizing, considering:
- Some have discovered many of the poems begin with a declarative followed by a metaphor.
- She's also recognized with use of humor, puns, irony, and satire. (Ah, how I love a punny joke.) Douglas Duncan: "lowers emotional temperature to make possible a poetry of wit"
- She's been linked with Emerson and the Transcendentalists, though there is some objection to that.
- I will often think of Dickinson when I hear the word "slant" in connection to poetry--her slant rhymes, her "a certain slant of light," her "tell the truth but tell it slant."
This, I know: even though tomorrow morning is to be the last Emily Dickinson meeting with MDB, I am clearly far from done with her. I'm reading My Wars are Laid Away in Books, a biography by Alfred Habegger, and I want to take a closer look at the ways in which other poets were influenced by Dickinson--there is an Annie Finch anthology on formal poetry to read, Adrienne Rich's essay "Vesuvius at Home" to read, an anthology called Visiting Emily: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Emily Dickinson, etc. No, not nearly the last of Emily Dickinson.